If You Believe: How Meaning Can Improve College Outcomes

The path to a college degree can be tough. Sometimes, students face difficulties that shake their confidence in themselves and their ability to succeed. As a college professor, it is common for a student to visit my office after a difficult exam questioning whether they are “college material” or wondering if they can “actually” do better. Of course, students’ beliefs are important when it comes to college persistence and success. A wealth of educational and psychological research suggests that students who maintain the belief that they will succeed in college are more proactive in seeking academic support, tend to earn higher grades, and are less likely to drop out of school.

I recently published a pair of studies in The International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology on the role of meaning in helping students maintain positive beliefs about succeeding in college. Psychologists define meaning in life as a person’s sense that their existence and what they do is important, purpose-driven, and makes sense. People who view their lives as meaningful tend to be happier and healthier, and they are better able to navigate life’s challenges to accomplish their goals. This is because feeling like one’s life is purposeful and important is inspiring; it gives people reason to get up in the morning, provides direction, and drives action.

Building on this idea that meaning in life is inspiring, I first tested whether college students who naturally view college as a meaningful or purpose-driven endeavor feel more confident about their ability to be successful in college. To accomplish this, I asked 387 undergraduate students the extent to which they agreed with statements such as, “The work I do in school serves a greater purpose.” I also asked the students how confident they felt that they would earn the grades they wanted in their college courses. Students who derived a sense of meaning from their college efforts also tended to report feeling more confident that they would succeed.

These findings suggest that college students who derive meaning in life from college are better able to maintain an optimistic view regarding their ability to succeed. Of course, this initial study assessed college meaning and students’ attitudes about success at the same time, so it is difficult to conclude the cause; does meaning in life help students maintain confidence, or does confidence about success lead students to feel like college is meaningful?

To address the issue of cause, I conducted an experiment in which I encouraged students to view college as a meaningful or purpose-driven endeavor, to see how adopting this mindset impacted students’ confidence toward college success. I did this with a meaning-focused reflective writing task. Specifically, students were asked to spend a few minutes thinking about and responding to the following questions: (1) “How does your education contribute to your sense of personal importance ?” and (2) “How will learning in school help you to be the person you want to be or help you make the kind of impact you want on the people around you or in society in general?”

Generally, students reported a stronger sense of meaning in life after completing this college-meaning writing exercise compared to students who completed a neutral writing exercise. Students wrote that college is meaningful because it helps them grow as a person, it makes their families/friends proud, it inspires others, and they view it as key in helping them land fulfilling or personally important careers. Critically, writing about how college is meaningful inspired confidence. Compared to students who did not write about the ways college is personally meaningful, students who completed the college-meaning writing task reported feeling more confident in their ability to accomplish their academic goals. In other words, this simple exercise enhanced students’ sense of meaning in life and gave them a temporary boost of confidence that they have what it takes to succeed in college.

My research on this topic is ongoing. There are many factors, such as how long these effects are likely to last and whether these positive beliefs translate to action, that remain unknown. However, the idea that a simple writing task could have lasting effects is not so far-fetched. For example, research on so-called “wise interventions,” which inspired my research, has demonstrated some dramatic effects using writing exercises to encourage college students to adopt positive mindsets.

One such “wise intervention” writing exercise involves reducing incoming students’ worries about fitting in and belonging within their college community. A recent large-scale research study testing the college belonging “wise intervention” in diverse college and university communities has provided strong evidence that not only does it work to promote student beliefs that they will be accepted in college, but it also has a positive impact on college persistence and academic achievement; students exposed to the college belonging “wise intervention” are more likely to complete their studies and tend to earn higher grades.

Similarly, encouraging students to view life goals as meaningful or purpose-driven endeavors could help sustain optimism and confidence for academic success and inspire resilience among students facing academic or personal setbacks. This could also motivate action beyond those currently enrolled in colleges and universities. Recent data shows there is a growing number of young adults in the U.S. with some college experience but no college degree. Some of these students may have left college due to pandemic-related challenges and have not made it back.

When stressed and facing serious setbacks, it is easy to lose focus on the bigger picture, which can derail people from pursuing their goals and diminish the hope they have for getting back on track. Perhaps taking a step back and affirming why college was something that former students found purposeful in the first place could help encourage them to take the first steps of registering for classes. Of course, the pandemic and resulting economic fallout have also led many young adults to question the value of a college degree. For these young people, it may not be a question of coming back to college but of finding a new path. Meaning in life could be beneficial in this situation, too. Purpose can give direction and inspire confidence to walk the unpaved path toward a more fulfilling career.

Indeed, a growing literature on meaningful work has found that the extent to which working adults view their jobs as personally important and purpose-driven is linked with positive work outcomes. For example, research indicates that those who view their work as meaningful are more satisfied with their jobs, more committed to their jobs, and more motivated at work. Thus, it would benefit organizations looking to attract and retain young talent to work on developing an organizational culture that broadly encourages meaning and specifically supports new hires in identifying how they could find meaning/purpose in their burgeoning career.

Going forward, I  plan to conduct large-scale research studies to test the effectiveness of the meaning writing task in college and non-college settings, as well as continue to explore how to help young adults develop a resilient meaning-making mindset that involves finding meaning and purpose in one’s life regardless of the challenges faced. Indeed, some of the most meaningful life experiences are the most stressful, and I believe that harnessing the power of meaning is key for resilience and human progress.

Andrew Abeyta
Andrew Abeyta
Andrew Abeyta, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Social and Existential Motives Lab at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, and a fellow with the Flourishing in Action project at the Archbridge Institute’s Human Flourishing Lab. He is a social psychologist who studies how people satisfy the psychological needs for meaning in life and social belonging. Dr. Abeyta’s research focuses on psychological factors, like the experience of nostalgia, religion, and supernatural beliefs, that promote social belonging and meaning in life. Additionally, Dr Abeyta’s research is interested in the implications of the needs for meaning in life and social belonging for human flourishing, psychological resilience, and human agency. Dr. Abeyta earned his BA in psychology from Colorado College, his MA in experimental psychology from the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, and his PhD in social and health psychology from North Dakota State University.
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